For Bishop Donald Kettler and the other Catholic bishops of Minnesota, spending a “day on the hill” March 5 with Gov. Mark Dayton and state lawmakers was an important opportunity to talk about the church’s public policy priorities, exchange ideas and look for common ground on key issues.
“When you sit down with somebody — even somebody who disagrees with you on an issue — and talk with them, your relationship with that person is different afterwards,” Bishop Kettler said. “I think on both sides it becomes more respectful. And, it can open the door to opportunities for working together.”
The bishops met with Dayton for breakfast at the archdiocesan chancery in St. Paul before heading to meetings with the leadership of both the House and Senate. Later in the day, the bishops broke into pairs at the State Office Building to visit with lawmakers from districts in their dioceses.
The day with legislators is an annual event organized by the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the state’s bishops. Also participating this year were Archbishop John Nienstedt, Bishop Lee Piché and Bishop Andrew Cozzens of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Bishop John LeVoir of New Ulm, Bishop Paul Sirba of Duluth, Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston and Bishop John Quinn of Winona.
This event came as committee deadlines at the Legislature are rapidly approaching. Bills must get through the committee process in their chamber of origin by March 20; the other chamber must take committee action on the bills that met this deadline by March 27.
“Everything is at a critical juncture with committee deadlines coming up,” said Jason Adkins, the MCC’s executive director.
In their meeting with Dayton and lawmakers, the bishops covered a variety of priorities, including:
- giving parents more choice in education;
- restoring the voting rights of ex-felons;
- establishing a legislative commission to study the issue of surrogacy and its impact on children, women and society;
- supporting provisional driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants;
- Increasing cash assistance provided to low-income families through the Minnesota Family Investment Program; and
- requiring doctors to provide pregnant women whose babies are diagnosed with certain chromosomal conditions with accurate information about these conditions and the support that is available.
“When we decide on legislation that we’re going to be actively lobbying in any given session, we try to find legislation that transcends the partisan divide,” Adkins said. “So, in almost every case, our legislation has a Republican as a House author and Democrat as a Senate author. It spans the broad range of concerns of Catholic social teaching.
When the bishops highlighted priorities in the meeting with Dayton, “he listened, he responded, he took notes and he invited us to come over to his house for the next meeting,” Bishop Kettler said.
The same cordial atmosphere was apparent in the bishops’ meetings with senators and representatives. “I think there’s been a positive reception and a willingness to say they’ll look at the issues,” Bishop Sirba said.
At the meeting with the governor, each bishop highlighted one or two of the MCC’s priorities for the current legislative session.
Bishop Kettler said he spoke about religious liberty, including the importance of the issue internationally in light of the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and other parts of the world. He said a resolution on the subject has been introduced in the Senate.
He also talked about caring for God’s creation and his concern that debate on environmental issues often isn’t very civil.
“I plead for a little civility,” said Bishop Kettler, who said the bishops are looking at the possibility of working with public officials to convene a summit on an environmental topic that would include people representing a variety of perspectives.
Bishop LeVoir spoke about the bill to provide accurate information to pregnant mothers whose babies are diagnosed with certain chromosomal conditions. The bishop spoke from experience: he has a 30-year-old nephew who has Down syndrome.
“Providing the information is important because, a lot of times, parents in that situation operate in fear,” he said. “This would help them operate out of knowledge and the feeling that they are supported — that there is help and that these kids are really a joy.
Bishop Sirba spoke about a tax credit bill that would allow individuals and corporations to contribute to scholarship-granting organizations and receive a tax credit for the contribution. The SGOs would then award scholarships to students from low- and moderate-income families to offset tuition expenses at the schools of their choice.
Bishop Hoeppner said he thanked the governor for his support last year of the Safe Harbor initiative, which provides a safety net of services to victims of sex trafficking. The bishops asked for his support for increased funding for the law in light of current needs and the state’s $1.9 billion budget surplus.
Bishop Hoeppner also spoke about the need to create a commission to study commercial surrogacy — arrangements in which a woman carries to term a child, who is not hers biologically, for the intended parents. The MCC has warned that such contracts often take advantage of women in financial need.
“The issue is so important and so complex that just to go ahead and pass legislation on it without taking a thorough look at what this is would not be a good idea,” he said. “That thorough look has never been done. … The business of surrogacy is fraught with problems, [and] not only morally and ethically for us Catholics. Anybody who’s interested in vulnerable people and respect for women should be interested in taking a look at this.”
Role for laity
Bishop Kettler noted that he previously invited central Minnesota legislators for a meeting and lunch at the chancery in St. Cloud, and he hopes to host a similar gathering in the future.
Everything the bishops addressed during their meetings in St. Paul complements what Catholics in the pews are hearing about through the MCC’s Catholic Advocacy Network, said Jessica Zittlow, MCC associate director for communications. The network keeps Minnesota Catholics updated on policy issues and ways they can support legislation consistent with Catholic social teaching. (Sign up at www.mncc.org.)
“It’s really about having that group effort, that community effort of Catholics coming together,” she said. “That’s the really exciting thing about the opportunity of these meetings today: having that continuity of voice.”
The bishops’ meetings with legislators are important, but they don’t replace the need for lay Catholics to take an active role in helping to create good laws and public policy, Bishop Kettler said.
“I hope that people do talk to their legislators about issues that are on their mind,” he said. “It’s important for two reasons: for legislators to hear the views of their people, but also for people to become better acquainted with the issues, so they can learn more and have a voice.”
By Joe Towalski